Seeing Without Looking–And How it Will Help Your Riding


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“Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” —Yoda

Here’s one of life’s terrible paradoxes:

  1. When you look into the future, it helps you be confident right now.
  2. But you can only look into the future when you are confident right now!

That sucks! If you’re afraid of an obstacle, you can’t take your eyes off it. We’ve all been there; flowing nicely along a trail when, all of a sudden, it gets scary. And at that moment, you can’t help yourself but stare directly at the huge rock that’s “in your way.” That’s your lizard—the part of your brain in charge of making game-time decisions—saying “Dude! Pay attention to THAT thing!! That thing right there!!!” Your central vision locks onto the rock. Your universe becomes that rock.

Moab, UT: Judd Zimmerman focuses softly on the surrounding hardness.

Getting back to our paradox, the only way to successfully ride that scary rock (and the next one) is to get your eyes off of it and look further down the trail. But, alas, you’re too scared to get your eyes off it.

So what can a mountain biker do? Practice these five things to master the art of seeing without looking:

Practice Soft Vision

Most of us see the world (and trails) with hard vision. We strain to see specific details—rocks, roots, ruts—and, in so doing, we see less of the overall picture. This decreases the amount of useful information that goes to our brains, and our riding suffers.

To make your vision soft, completely relax your eyes. Here’s a tip I learned in yoga class: Imagine your eye sockets are windows and your eyes are in the back of your skull. Let your eyes recede and your vision soften. You know this is working when your face relaxes too. 

Pay Attention to the Periphery

In your everyday life, practice looking at objects while also noticing everything around them. For example, use the period at the end of this sentence. First focus intently on it, noticing how everything else seems to close around it. Then, soften your eyes and notice the period—and everything else on your screen.

This skill will translate to the trail by helping you quickly assess both the best line through rock garden you’re about to smash into AND the blown-out corner that’s directly afterward.

Notice the Edges

Try this next time you ride a trail you know. Aim the center of your vision up the trail, into the future. Soften your eyes and see the whole scene. As you ride, notice the trees or rocks on the edges of the trail. Let your body see the trail itself, but pay more attention to the edges.

See how fast the trees, cacti, or rocks are scrolling by? That information is massively useful as it helps your body manage itself in space and, hopefully, avoid a collision with said objects.

Don’t Look at Anything

But see everything.

That might sound silly, but it works. Keep your eyes soft. Notice the whole picture. Let the scene play out before you. Trying to see any particular detail won’t help! Actually, it usually hurts. Especially if that detail is a jump’s eight-foot-tall wooden lip.

When you’re scared, you might notice your eyes darting at the thing you’re afraid of. Don’t fight this! Your body is warning you of possible danger. Look at the thing and, as quickly as possible, decide how you’re going to handle it.

Your decision won’t be logical and wordy, like why you selected a certain wheel size. This decision happens in an instant, in your body. When you see a ledge and, in a snap, you see or feel yourself pulling your shoulders low then pushing your bars over the edge, the decision has been made and your mind can move on.

Get Back to the Big Picture

When you’re on a rock, the best thing you can do is load visual data for the next rock, and let your body ride this rock the way it knows how. Even if your technique isn’t perfect, your body is better at this than your mind. Trust the big picture. Believe in your body.

As you gain skill in riding and seeing, these panicked staring contests will become shorter and less disruptive. Your eyes will call out a salient detail, you’ll make an intuitive decision then you’ll continue on your merry way.

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